War and climate change

Image: Emelindo Nardin


World peace would not only save lives and livelihoods, but also contribute to saving the planet and nature..


As the horrendous war in Ukraine drags on, with lives lost mounting, energy and food prices are at soaring levels. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) publishes a monthly global price index. This index reached yet another record; behold, it reached 159,3 points in March, up 12,6% compared to February.

FAO food price index

FAO food price index


Oil and gas prices are also close to all-time highs. In Europe, gas prices hit a record €335 per megawatt hour, and at that level it has become cheaper for some power plants to burn coal instead of gas, even when the cost of carbon allowances is taken away. in consideration.

Europe wants to follow NATO's proposal to reduce Russian energy imports. The irony is that some countries, like Italy, say they will need to burn more coal to burn less Russian gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) presented the problem: there is a dilemma between global warming versus energy needs, which was brought about by the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia. “The faster European Union policymakers seek to move away from Russian gas supplies, the greater the potential implication, in terms of short-term economic costs and emissions” – this is what this agency said, in a report.

Can the circle be squared? Is it still about getting more energy supply to lower prices, while still seeking to reduce fossil fuel production in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The answer appears to be no: “We are determined to limit [Vladimir] Putin's ability to finance his atrocious war,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter. And she went on to say: “The European Union must get rid of its dependence on fossil fuels”.

At first glance, these two goals seem to be compatible. Won't cutting Russia's fossil fuel power reduce energy use and carbon emissions? After all, clean energy, says Christian Lindner, Germany's finance minister, should be considered the “energy of freedom”. Thus, the German government plans to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports, accelerating the production of renewable energies to reach 100% “clean energy” by 2035. In the same speech, however, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed the thesis that, in the short term, there is no choice but to continue buying gas and oil from Russia!

At COP26, which took place in Glasgow, an agreement was reached to reduce the production of fossil fuels, although not without a fierce debate about whether coal should be “abandoned” or “eliminated”. The chairman of that meeting, Alok Sharma, then stated that “countries are turning their backs on coal; behold, the end of coal is in sight.” And yet, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, far from slowing down, coal use globally reached record levels last winter. Thus, emissions have risen, while facilities for producing clean energy have fallen below levels needed to meet climate targets.

In the US, coal-fired power generation was higher in 2021 under President Joe Biden than it was in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump. Now, it was the latter that positioned itself as the supposed savior of the US coal industry. In Europe, energy from coal increased by 18% in 2021, its first increase in almost a decade. Economist Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford, says replacing fossil fuels has rarely looked more complicated. “The energy transition was already in trouble – 80% of the world's energy still comes from fossil fuels,” he said. “I expect that in the short term, the US will increase oil and gas production and EU coal consumption may increase.”

This clash of goals of “Western civilization” comes at a time when global warming and climate change are reaching a tipping point; it is “now or never” as the Paris target of limiting global temperature rise to “only” 1,5°C may now be missed. When presenting the latest IPCC report on climate change (which supposedly outlines “solutions” to meet the targets and thus mitigate global warming), UN Secretary General Antônio Guterres commented: “The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership (by governments) is criminal.”

By making this statement, he meant that the 198 countries, gathered in Glasgow for the Conference on Climate Change – COP26 – last November, were failing to achieve any of their (already inadequate) emission reduction targets. So global temperatures do look like they are going to cross the threshold of 1,5°C above 1850 industrial levels. In fact, the world is predicted to face a temperature rise of 2,7°C under current climate plans – warned the UN. Current pledges would cut carbon emissions by only about 7,5% by 2030, far less than the 45% cut that scientists say is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1,5°C.

And it is not only necessary to reduce current emissions, but also to reduce the already accumulated levels of carbon in the atmosphere. It's an inventory problem because many gases are long-lived. Nitrous oxide can remain in the atmosphere for 121 years, methane for 12 years. The lifetime of carbon dioxide cannot be represented with a single value because the gas is not destroyed over time, but circulates through the ocean-atmosphere-land system that makes up the Earth. Some carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and melting glaciers can release large amounts of previously trapped carbon into the atmosphere.

Hoesung Lee, President of the IPCC, bluntly explained: “Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts, i.e. loss and damage related to nature and people, in addition to climate variability. Natural". Although “some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability” – he continued – “increased climate variability and climate extremes have led to some irreversible impacts; behold, natural and human systems are being pushed beyond their capacity for adaptation”.

IPCC Working Group Co-Chair Hans-Otto Portner clarified: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief, fast-closing window to secure a livable future.”

Lee made it clear what he thought should be done right away. “The time to stop the exploitation of fossil fuels, which are destroying our planet, is now. Half measures are no longer an option.” Just stopping the exploitation of fossil fuels is exactly that – it is only a half measure. That's because to comply with the Paris agreement, the world would have to eliminate 53,5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year over the next 30 years.

The problem comes from “Western civilization”: the mature capitalist economies, which have produced the accumulation of carbon stocks and other dangerous gases in the atmosphere over the last 100 years, are the ones that are doing the least to solve the climate crisis. About a third of the current stockpile of greenhouse gases was created by Europe and a quarter by the US.

Yes, China and India are now the first and third largest emitters. But measured in terms of per capita emissions, these two countries rank number 40 and 140. In terms of per capita stock, they produce one-tenth the level of Europe. And, ironically, the main contributors to the stock of carbon emissions benefit from global warming, as these mature capitalist (imperialist) economies are mostly in cold climates.

The countries of the Global North (Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan) are responsible for 92% of total emissions that are causing climate breakdownO. Meanwhile, the Global South – all continents in Asia, Africa and Latin America – are responsible for only 8% of “excess emissions”. And most of these countries are still within their emission limit quotas, including India, Indonesia and Nigeria. To make matters worse, the impacts of climate breakdown fall disproportionately on countries in the global South, which suffer the vast majority of damage and mortality induced by climate change within their borders.

Lancet report

Lancet report


A recent survey in the journal Nature found that G20 countries spent $14 trillion on economic stimulus measures during 2020 and 2021 – but only 6% of that was allocated to reducing emissions. Investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates that achieving sufficient emissions reductions would cost about $50 trillion. About $20 trillion in cumulative investment will be needed to move away from fossil fuels. Solar, wind and hydropower will require $14 trillion in investment to provide 80% of global energy by 2050, and the adoption of electric vehicles will require $11 trillion to build factories and infrastructure and develop battery technology.

Biofuels such as ethanol could be important for future global transport; hydrogen may eventually be used in aircraft, but to develop this technology would require an additional investment of US$2,7 trillion. Carbon capture and storage can play a critical role in the energy transition, but an additional $2,5 trillion is needed for development. Now compare the $50 trillion price tag to the $100 billion it took countries six years to get together.

Yes, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced in some countries and technical solutions are available. Alternative renewable energy costs have dropped by 85% over the last ten years. But coal production – it is predicted – needs to be cut by 76% by 2030. And oil/gas infrastructure projects must be stopped. The current funding stream is dramatically insufficient to boost renewable energy and manage fossil fuel reduction. The funding for all this change is minuscule compared to the task.

And a shift to “clean energy” will not be enough, especially as mining and refining alternative fuels and systems also require more fossil fuel energy. All the batteries, solar panels and windmills in the world will not reduce demand for fossil fuels in the short term. Internal combustion vehicles – commercial and passenger – use a lot of steel, but electric vehicles use a wider range of more expensive metals.

For example, the average internal combustion passenger vehicle uses less than 50 pounds of copper, while a Tesla uses about 180 pounds of copper, that is, in the form of wire wound around its electric motors. In addition, essential batteries for electric vehicles rely on materials such as lithium and nickel, which require intensive electrical and chemical costs to process. All of this means more fossil fuel production to mine more metals.

I've discussed a lot why market solutions such as carbon pricing and carbon taxes, will not deliver the necessary reductions in emissions. Market solutions will not work because it is simply not profitable for capital to invest in climate change mitigation: “Private investment in productive capital and infrastructure faces high upfront costs and significant uncertainties that cannot always be priced in. Investments for the transition to a low-carbon economy are also exposed to important political risks, illiquidity and uncertain returns, depending on policy approaches to mitigation, as well as unpredictable technological advances.” (IMF).

Saving the planet and all the species that live on it cannot be achieved through market pricing mechanisms or even through even smarter technology. Remember that the most modern, so-called smart science, provided life-saving vaccines and drugs in the COVID pandemic, but it was capitalism and pro-capitalist governments that still allowed the outbreak of the pandemic. Furthermore, they failed to prevent an estimated 20 million “excess deaths” globally.

To stop the process of global warming, we don't just need new smart technology, we need to eliminate old fossil fuel technology. In addition, we need a global plan to target investments in things society needs, such as renewable energy, organic agriculture, public transport, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.

Such a plan could also equalize development across the world, shifting resources from useless and harmful production in the North to development in the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care. At the same time, a global plan could aim to provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the downsizing or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries. But such a plan requires public ownership and control of fossil fuel companies and other key energy and food sectors. Without this, there can be no effective plan.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, we need to remember that the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are the military. The US military is the world's largest consumer of oil and, as a result, one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The Pentagon's greenhouse gas emissions annually total more than 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If it were a nation-state, the US military would be the 47th largest emitter in the world, with emissions greater than Portugal, Sweden or Denmark.

And the US military is expanding all the time to protect US interests in petroleum resources, fossil fuels, around the world. The Cost of Wars project found that total emissions from war-related activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria could be estimated at over 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Thus, global warming and the exploration, production and refining of fossil fuels are inextricably linked to military spending. Wars and rising weapons spending are not only killing people and destroying lives and homes, but also adding to the climate disaster that is engulfing humanity globally. World peace would not only save lives and livelihoods, it would also contribute to saving the planet and nature.

*Michael Roberts is an economist. Author, among other books, of The Great Recession: A Marxist View.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published in The next recession blog


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